In times of a decreasing interest in classical literature on the whole it is an important duty of scholars to remind a more general readership of our classical legacy. An apt topic through which to do so is the theme of love, immanent in almost any kind of literature. In antiquity it can be most easily traced in the specific form of classical erotic verse.
Niklas Holzberg, Professor of the Classics at Munich University and renowned in recent years for his important books on Roman elegy, especially Catullus, as well as on Martial and Ovid, has in his latest little book Applause for Venus collected the 100 most beautiful love poems of Greek and Roman antiquity. He has given all of them a new and up-to-date German translation, in which, according to his foreword, he corrects translators of former generations who too often played down the original’s explicit reference to sexual acts and obscenities. The collection is completed by a short biographical sketch of each author and a number of carefully chosen pictures of erotic scenes in different forms of classical art.
Not surprisingly, the collection begins with the famous earliest examples of erotic verse by Sappho and Anakreon, for each of whom Holzberg chooses one of the not fragmentary poems (in Sappho’s case probably the only one, 1 Voigt). Also included are some Anacreontic poems of the Hellenistic period, which have proven highly influential not only on later Roman poetry, but also on a variety of 18th-century German poetry. The chronological order steps forward to Meleager, whose poetry is handed down to us in the Anthologia Palatina of Byzantine times, before we reach Roman literature and the Augustan period. The selection of Roman poetry starts with Catullus, for whom Holzberg chooses twelve of the well-known elegies addressed to Lesbia (most famously Cat. 2, 5, and 85). Before moving on to Catullus’ elegiac successors Propertius and Tibullus, we find Corydon’s words to Alexis from the second poem of Vergil’s Bucolics, which was influential on both of Catullus’ successors, and six of Horace’s Odes (1.13, 19, 23. 3.10, 26; 4.1). For Propertius, Holzberg has chosen a variety of poems from the four books of elegies addressed to Cynthia. For Tibullus the reader finds a poem from each of the three cycles in which the author appears as lover of Delia, Marathus and Nemesis (1.3; 1.9. 2,4) and two more poems from the third book of his elegies (3.13; 3.17 and 18), which is probably not by Tibullus but is either the work of a single author, the so-called Pseudo-Tibullus, or a mixing of poems by several authors.
A highlight of the collection is Ovid, whose poetry, regardless of genre, concentrated on the topic of love. Despite the large variety of possible passages in the Ovidian oeuvre, Holzberg limits his selection to the Amores, from which twelve poems are chosen (Am 1.4;5; 13; 2.4; 5; 11; 13; 15; 3.2; 7; 11; 14). We then move on to two Greek authors who can be dated to the first century BC, Rufinus and Straton, both of whom had a great influence on Martial. And it is Martial and a selection of his well-known poems (1,36; 3.65; 4.7; 42; 5.46; 83; 6.34; 8.46; 9.67; 11.6; 26; 58) that round up the collection.
In the appendix, Holzberg adds a helpful alphabetical glossary of proper names, information about his textual sources, mainly OCT and Teubner, and the origin of the 15 pictures. Holzberg points out that he has used a number of mainly German translations as preparation. He also explains why he chose not verse but rather a sort of rhythmic prose translation, which is supposed to give the modern reader an idea of the metre of the original. This choice makes the German translation at points a little difficult to read, but still somewhat easier to adapt to than poetry.
What makes this little collection even more valuable is the short foreword, in which Holzberg explains why ancient love literature is at the same time so close and so alien to our own times. He dwells on the fact that even for an educated modern reader, easy though it may be for him to understand the idea of the human erotic relations as such, it is more difficult to grasp the social reality that lies behind these poems. Holzberg also explains the overall design of the collection: he has tried to choose poems that are on the whole or at least in part connected to each other in their content so that the intertextuality could be easily grasped by the reader. The collection also includes examples of the most important metres from all epochs of classical lyric poetry, from Greek archaic poetry to the epigrams of the early imperial era.
On the whole Holzberg has produced a useful little book, which gives the reader insight into one of the most popular genres of the classical period as well as the social reality that lay behind it. Although useful mainly to German readers, the book is beautifully put together, thoroughly edited, and comes in a handy hard-bound format at a reasonable price. This makes it a must-have for all friends of classical and/or erotic literature and also a beautiful present for all students and connoisseurs of the classics.